Is your problem a 5 minute or a 5 day problem?

1 minute read

I still benefit today from advice given to me more than 20 years ago on how to deal with problems.

I worked for a tech firm providing services to TV companies. A small app I built collated viewer feedback and sent an email summary every hour or so to our customer (a notoriously irate executive). The app worked most of the time but it would occasionally re-send data. Late on Friday and unable to determine why, I was dubious about running the service unsupervised during our first live weekend. Assuming that our customer would be away until Monday morning, I disabled the app until then so that I could double-check everything before sharing the weekend’s feedback.

Saturday morning. A surprise call from my “actually in the office” and apoplectic client quashes that assumption. Having found no emails in his inbox, he lets loose a volley of Silver and Gold medal swearwords aimed directly at me. Holding the phone away from my ear, I apologise and agree to make things right as soon I could. The call ended. I cried. My weekend now ruined.

Monday morning. I find my manager, make a profuse apology and explain the gravity of the situation. Looking slightly confused he asks “is that it?”. I summarise the problem again, I wasn’t clear. Smiling, he asks me “Rhyd, did this problem really matter to anyone after 5 minutes? What about in 5 hours? Will it still matter in 5 days, weeks or months? What you’ve got there is a 5 minute problem. Fix it but don’t worry about it.”

Realisation dawns. I’d wasted time & energy on an undeserving problem. Two days stress & worry for a flash in the pan. I made a 5 minute problem into something far worse.

Ever since then, I try to gauge if a problem feels like a 5 minute, 5 hour, 5 day, 5 week or 5 month problem. In my experience, most are 5 minute problems so there’s no point devoting more time than this towards them. Fix the problem, learn from it but then move on to what really deserves your time and attention.